Friday, June 14, 2024

Cambridge filmmaker Katrina Browne and professor Tulaine Shabazz Marshall, of Lesley University and the Episcopal Divinity School, will be on hand Thursday at a screening and discussion of Browne’s “Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North.”

The film examines the complicity of the North in slavery in the most personal of terms, starting when producer/director Browne discovers her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine cousins retrace the Triangle Trade in what New York Times critic Stephen Holden calls “A far-reaching personal documentary … The implications of the film are devastating.”

The film will be shown from 6:30 to 7:40 p.m. in the lecture hall of Cambridge Public Library’s Main Branch, 449 Broadway. A discussion with Browne and Shabazz Marshall follows until 8:30 p.m. The event is free; it is a presentation by the City of Cambridge Employees’ Committee on Diversity.

For more on the film, go to

The filmmakers have provided some background for the film:

From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed their ships from Bristol, R.I., to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Captives were taken to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in such ports as Havana and Charleston. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol. Over the generations, the family transported more than 10,000 enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage. They amassed a fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf had been a U.S. senator and was reportedly the second-richest man in the United States.

The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family. It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The Triangle Trade drove the economy of many port cities (Rhode Island had the largest share in the trade of any state), and slavery itself existed in the North for more than 200 years. Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution, while banks and insurance companies played a key role throughout the period. While the DeWolfs were one of only a few “slaving” dynasties, the network of commercial activities that they were tied to involved an enormous portion of the Northern population. Many citizens, for example, would buy shares in slave ships to make a profit.

The film follows 10 DeWolf descendants ages 32-71, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins, as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting the DeWolf hometown of Bristol, slave forts on the coast of Ghana and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba. Browne pushes the family forward as they struggle through the minefield of race politics. Back home, the family confronts the thorny topic of what to do — in the context of growing calls for reparations for slavery, they struggle with how to think about and contribute to “repair” and deal with their love/hate relationship with their own Yankee culture and privileges.

The issues the DeWolf descendants are confronted with dramatize questions that apply to the nation as a whole: What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery—for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes whom what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation? What would repair — spiritual and material — really look like and what would it take?